I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s piece in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, In Praise of Stubborn Gladness, in one fast gulp, my heart in my throat. Just the title made me gasp, because it reminded me of my own musings on what I called sturdy joy.
Gilbert, writing about a poem by Jack Gilbert, evinces a perspective on what it means to live fully in the world that’s so familiar and resonant to me it felt like I was reading my own thoughts (albeit far more beautifully expressed):
When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naive optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: He says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy. That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense” – it’s defending joy. A real, mature, sincere joy – not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy. He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the word. He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all. And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
This defines exactly what I want to strive to be – a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness” even when we dwell in blackness.
I went back and re-read this passage, and the whole essay, several times. Maybe it’s this stubborn gladness that’s at the root of this blog and has been for years. I know that “wonder” is one of my most-used words here, and it appears in pages and pages of blog post subject headings. I don’t have much to add to Gilbert’s perfect lines (both of them, Elizabeth and Jack) other than to say yes, yes, yes, and me too, me too, me too.
I’ve written a million times about the fact that I’m as much shadow as sun, about my unshakable experience of life as an amalgam of light and shadow (and that each enriches the other), about how “untrammeled joy” isn’t part of my vocabulary. All of that is true. I believe the world’s a ruthless furnace, no matter how you look at it, and our lives are pocked with loss, sorrow, difficulty, and melancholy. None of that takes away from the brilliant flashes of joy that can – and do – exist throughout, though. If anything, life’s unavoidable shadows make the joy it contains more lambent.
Here’s to vivid experiences, to living along the margins of light and dark, to experiencing both fully, and to having, along the way, a deep seam of stubborn gladness, of sturdy joy. Amen.